September 11, 2010 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Unanswered questions remain for Spartans, Mark Dantonio

MSU wide receiver B.J. Cunningham can't make a catch as the pass is broken up by FAU defensive backs Ed Alexander, bottom, and Tavious Polo at the end of the second quarter. (Todd McInturf/The Detroit News)

Detroit -- Two games, two victories, for Michigan State and Mark Dantonio after they beat Howard Schnellenberger and Florida Atlantic (in that order) Saturday at Ford Field.

And, yes, there were questions Saturday more relevant to the Spartans than the mystery of what Schnellenberger was thinking with 2:53 left in the game.

Florida Atlantic had the ball at MSU's 6 with the Spartans leading, 30-14. A touchdown and a two-point conversion could have closed the gap to eight points with 2 1/2 minutes to play.

And given MSU's recent past with onside kicks, that scenario had a few spines quivering in Spartanland.

Schnellenberger opted for a field goal, which, according to mainstream mathematics, still left Florida Atlantic two touchdowns shy of the Spartans.

"I didn't know if our defense could slow anybody down," said Schnellenberger, a venerable, white-haired gentleman of 76 who has a lustrous coaching resume that spans the NFL and major universities.

So, we'll accept that this one got away from Schnellenberger -- his decision as well as his post-game explanation -- and turn to the Spartans, who raise a few questions of their own.

Is this a team that can be trusted to knock out Notre Dame next week when the Spartans struggled to finish off a less-blessed bunch from the Sun Belt Conference?

And how many cards has Dantonio shown offensively and defensively? The Spartans stuck to the turf, running the ball 30 times, and throwing all of 17 passes for 142 yards.

On defense, they ran a four-man front almost all afternoon, barely showed their alleged three-man alignment, and kept blitz packages to a minimum.

"We're just trying to win a football game," said Dantonio, who is more of a CIA operative than he lets on when it comes to football's cloakroom strategies.

And so, expect Brian Kelly, the new Notre Dame coach, to learn more about the Spartans from 2009's films than he will have seen from their early thumpings of Western Michigan and Florida Atlantic.

The Spartans, though, are intriguing because they're fundamentally talented.

Saturday, they knew their offensive front and running backs would probably be enough to plow under the Owls (uh, we can't resist: Whoooooo at Florida Atlantic decided to make this a home game that drew all of 36,124 on Saturday and was legitimately avoided by so many MSU fans?).

Edwin Baker, who has settled in as MSU's flagship back, ran for 183 yards, while Le'Veon Bell galloped for another 49. Kirk Cousins threw an NFL-grade touchdown pass to B.J. Cunningham and also got picked off on what should have been a late TD for MSU.

The defense, likewise, was more down than up. A traditional Spartans soft spot, the secondary, looks again as if it could ruin one of those otherwise pleasant Saturdays for Michigan State.

But, to repeat, it's early. Next week's game will be a good indication whether MSU can win the nine or so games the schedule, and the Spartans' depth, suggest could happen.

The Spartans bring to mind something Jim Leyland said about his 2006 Tigers after they had made it to that year's World Series.

"I thought we had good players," Leyland said of the roster he greeted in Florida. "I didn't think we had a good team."

But they became a good team, which is the kind of evolution Dantonio's squad is capable of experiencing when talent is abundant in East Lansing.

Even the Spartans' kicking game, which was the one scary place on MSU's roster entering September, looked sharp Saturday as Dan Conroy drilled all three of his field-goal tries: 50, 44, and 41 yards.

He'll need to make those same kicks on an outdoor field, with 40,000 more fans on hand, and more at stake in the waning minutes of a Big Ten game. But a sophomore with his leg generally needs one ally only: experience. And Conroy got a significant splash of it.

What exactly MSU is crafting is interesting bar conversation, not to mention a question Dantonio was asked to take a crack at after Saturday's game.

"That remains to be seen," he said, knowing what everyone else understands -- that the Spartans haven't yet played anything close to a heavyweight. "We'll have to play our way to the situation."

The "situation" spanning MSU's next four weeks includes Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

Whatever tricks and traps the Spartans haven't revealed in the season's first two weeks will be on display soon. Whether victories follow is for a talented team to determine.

(313) 222-2472 lynn.henning@detnews.com">lynn.henning@detnews.com.

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